Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Amorak Huey on Davy Rothbart's My Heart Is an Idiot

In a recent Grantland piece musing on what makes sports entertaining, Chuck Klosterman rails against a certain television commercial in which a high school football player does a flip over an opposing tackler; the gymnastic feat is captured on video; said video goes viral; and in the end the player is apparently being recruited by a major college program. Klosterman calls the commercial “glib and insidious,” and then adds:

And here's what's really stupid: I wouldn't hate it if it happened in reality. If a real kid got a scholarship to Oklahoma because of this kind of scenario, I would be charmed. Anytime a real athlete's individual performance outshines the unsophisticated concept of winning or losing, I inevitably love it. His or her motives are almost an afterthought. I only find it troubling when the scenario is fake. Fiction is always more real to me.

Fiction is always more real to me. I think I know what Klosterman means here. I don’t think it’s exactly “more real,” but something about how fiction can be manipulated to seem real – and it is in that manipulation that fiction finds its meaning. The author controls (more or less) all the moving parts in fiction, so that in the end the point being made/the world being evoked/the moral of the story is essentially what the author wants it to be. So if a work of fiction is sentimental, we see this as a character flaw on the part of the author – who has chosen the sentimentality. Whatever cell phone company made the commercial (I could look it up but don’t care enough) chose implausibility and easy feel-good-ness. The commercial’s narrative is compelling because it’s implausible, or at least the conceit of the commercial is that we’re supposed to think it’s implausible: the story of an unlikely triumph.

Yet the implausible is meaningful only if it is also real. If I tell you I saw a zebra walking down the sidewalk in the snow in my Michigan neighborhood this morning, it would be a dumb little lie that you won’t believe (or care about). But if I actually saw that zebra in East Grand Rapids, and if you believe me when I tell you about it, then the story becomes something worth telling. Like Klosterman says: actual kid wins actual scholarship because of actual viral video? Cool story. But ad-agency-created fake kid wins fake scholarship? Yadda manipulative blah blah boringcakes.

All of which is to say, of course, that nonfiction matters: as a form, as a label, as an idea and an ideal. Obviously. (I doubt you’re reading anything on a site called Essay Daily if you think nonfiction doesn’t matter.) It matters, in part, because of the way it shapes the reading experience. Expectations are shaped when you call a story true, when you claim a space within nonfiction for your writing. Davy Rothbart’s My Heart Is an Idiot claims that space in no uncertain terms, announcing its genre on the cover with the word “ESSAYS” tattooed on a bicep under the title.
These are not exactly essays in the Montaigne sense, musing on some particular topic or other: “On the Idiocy of the Human Heart” or whatever. Nor are these the essays of first-year composition with a thesis sentence and a point to make. They are not organized with argument and evidence. They are not heavy on reflection or philosophical musing. They feel more like stories than essays: yarns, and ripping good ones. Tales told well, full of plot and personality, humor and high jinx. But they also are and must be essays: if they weren’t nonfiction, they wouldn’t work.

Consider “How I Got These Boots,” a short piece in which Rothbart recounts how he acquired the boots of a hitchhiker he once gave a ride to the Grand Canyon. Rothbart was at a particularly low point, emotionally, and it turned out the man he picked up was fulfilling a longtime quest to see the Grand Canyon: “I felt lucky that I was about to witness someone realize their lifelong dream. My own dreams seemed hazier and more impossible.” But the trip turns out a success, both for Rothbart’s passenger, who ends up with a job at the canyon, and for Rothbart himself. The essay ends:
A year later, when I left Chicago and drove to New Mexico to follow my dreams of being a writer, I was wearing those boots with the red laces. On my dashboard was the picture of John Molloy at the edge of the canyon, fists raised against the sky.

If this piece were a work of fiction, it would be sentimental hokum. But as nonfiction, it’s sweet  and even a little inspiring. The same adjectives apply to the book in general. The world Rothbart describes is a warm place – people have problems, and sometimes do harm to each other, but by and large we’re all doing the best we can most of the time. There’s a tenderness in how Rothbart sees humanity that would be tricky to pull off in fiction without being saccharine.

Part of this brand of storytelling is exaggeration. And the stories Rothbart tells do have that tall tale feel at times. In “Ninety-Nine Bottles of Pee on the Wall,” he gets really mad at an unscrupulous scam artist who’s ripping off hopeful writers. So Rothbart starts sending the guy bottles of urine. As you do, right? Too weird to be true, or so weird it must be true? Look, any binary definitions of fiction and nonfiction are sure to break down. Lines will blur, walls crumble, art will exist in the overlapping cross-hatched areas of the Venn diagram. Memory is flawed. Perception is idiosyncratic by definition. Every area is gray. Fiction draws its strength from being believable; nonfiction gains power from being unbelievable. Unbelievable yet believed.

I met Rothbart a few months ago when he visited the school where I teach. He’s funny, charming, smart, cool – really cool. The kind of cool guy who wears a cool hat, and cool clothes, and knows other cool people, and after five minutes in his presence, I was pretty convinced of the truth of the essays in My Heart Is an Idiot. The dead body in the swimming pool? The bus rider who claims to be 120 years old? The guy who pretends to be a girl named Nicole so he can have phone sex with random men in a Motel 6? I believe all of it.

Rothbart is also editor of Found Magazine, which publishes reader-submitted notes and letters and other odds and ends found in random places. There’s surprising power in these bits of ephemera – what we learn about humanity from the fragments of language we leave behind. And again, the power comes from knowing that these found items are real. How easy would it be to make up an abandoned love letter that makes its sender look silly? When he is asked how he knows that no one is doing just that, inventing things to submit, Rothbart says, in essence, that he trusts people not to do that and that he thinks the payoff is too small for anyone to bother. Why would anyone need to make this shit up when there’s so much real shit out there? On the one hand, this attitude seems perhaps a little naïve, given how often people lie and often for little to no payoff; on the other hand, it makes perfect sense – and it certainly matches the approach to life Rothbart brings to My Heart Is an Idiot. There’s a bit of eager puppy dog about Rothbart as he presents himself in these essays –  throwing himself open and expecting that everyone else is doing the same thing.  Predictably, this gets him into trouble, and certainly the book earns its title. Quite often, his heart really is an idiot. The rest of him, too. I mentioned that he mailed his piss to an enemy, didn’t I? But there’s also real wisdom here, street smarts woven throughout the narratives – an intelligence about how things work. The last essay in the collection is called “Ain’t That America,” after the John Cougar Mellencamp lyric. Of that song, Rothbart writes:

This, from what I knew of it, was one of those songs, like Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.,” that had been written as a eulogy for the dying American Dream but had been so widely misinterpreted as an anthem of patriotism and working-class pride that its original intent had been usurped in the popular imagination. And, actually, when you really thought about it, the artists were wrong and the popular imagination was right, for how could you listen to Mellencamp sing the chorus and not feel stirred by a love for America, whatever its shortcomings might be?

This is an apt description of how a reader ends up feeling about Rothbart himself and about the particular version of America he inhabits and the motley crew of characters he encounters: stirred by a genuine affection, regardless of the shortcomings. In the end, there’s more heart here than idiot.

One other thing that you learn when you meet Rothbart in person is that he remembers names with remarkable accuracy. At the Q&A session after a reading, he’ll refer to previous questioners by name, or call on someone for a second question. At an evening appearance, he gives a shoutout to audience members who previously attended the afternoon event. Asked how he does it, he offers a simple answer: “I pay attention when people tell me.” Most people, he explains, ask your name and then only half-listen to the answer. Having noticed this, he resolved to listen fully. It makes perfect sense. It explains his essays, too: he’s paying attention. He lives life with his eyes open, he absorbs what happens around him – and so when he tells it back to us, it’s real. It’s believable. It’s nonfiction.


Amorak Huey spent more than a decade as an editor and reporter at newspapers in Florida, Kentucky, and Michigan. Now he teaches writing at Grand Valley State University in Michigan. His poems have appeared in The Best American Poetry 2012, The Southern Review, Subtropics, The Cincinnati Review, Carolina Quarterly and other journals. Follow him on Twitter: @amorak

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